publication date: Sep. 20, 2019

Guest Editorial

Herceptin: What it took to make it happen

Robert Bazell

By Robert Bazell

Adjunct professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology,

Yale University


One day in 1996, in my role as chief science correspondent for NBC News, I was rummaging through the usual huge (pre-internet) pile of press releases on my desk and zeroed in on one: a phase III trial of a treatment for an aggressive type of breast cancer that was desperate to accrue volunteers.

It appeared that the experimental drug was the first to take aim at an oncogene. Since 1976, when Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus discovered that specific genes when mutated caused cancer in chickens and others found oncogenes in humans in 1982, the great and obvious hope was that these would be targets for a new, and, one hoped, less toxic form of therapy. But until then nothing had appeared, and now, this first ever trial was failing for lack of volunteers. I set out to find out what was going on.

The trials centered on an oncogene called HER2. The drug was Herceptin (trastuzumab), a monoclonal antibody that targets the HER2 receptor protein on the surface cells. When the HER2 gene is mutated, the cell receptors are over-expressed—thousands of times more appear than normal—driving out-of-control cell growth. Herceptin, it was hoped, would shut down the unwanted growth.

The results of that clinical trial … Continue reading Herceptin: What it took to make it happen

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